There is but a week left in July and we are officially well past Zack Wheeler’s long-awaited due date. All expectations were that he would be able to return from last year’s Tommy John surgery around July 1 of this season. Then that got pushed to the All-Star break. Now, we’re just a few sunsets away from the non-waiver trade deadline, Wheeler is still not back in Queens, and the Mets are suddenly faced with some critical decisions that may well shape the heretofore unknown results of this season’s conclusion. It makes for some great drama, sure, but there are always some things you’d just rather know.
We’re going to see a ton of trades over the next six days, some of them bigger and more profound than others. The Cubs have kicked off this wave in a truly surprising fashion by acquiring Aroldis Chapman for four players, including a couple of fine younger ones. There are a hundred different feelings one might have about this transaction, and it gets complicated from the perspective of both teams. (With the Mets’ recent signing of Jose Reyes, many of the same frustrations and conflicted feelings that bubbled up then are being rekindled anew by a different fan base. Bryan has written about this, and so has Andrew. They are worthy re-reads in light of recent events.) And whether you agree—whatever that even means in this case—with the Chapman trade, there’s one objective estimation that can be gleaned from the move and that lies in Epstein’s belief in the now, eschewing the undetermined future to make a bigger push for 2016 above all other years. (Again, you can quibble with how much Chapman actually helps the Cubs this season over another reliever, but Epstein believes it and so now we play the waiting game.)
The Cubs have decided they’re going to be aggressive, leave nothing to chance, shove the future aside and live in the now. Awesome! Good for them. They’ve got a great record. They churn out high-grade prospects like the Enterprise did tribbles. They haven’t won in 108 years, so aside from Chicago-area Lost enthusiasts who might believe such an omen sufficient to ride with what they’ve got, the Cubs are going to keep nipping and tucking to construct the roster they believe functions best. And in this way, they force all other teams to make their own decisions. More specifically, it’s the kind of move that directly affects other organizations from a psychological point of view, which brings us (as it always does) to the Mets.
By acquiring Chapman, the Cubs will help some clubs decide this season isn’t worth the risk, to pack it in and regroup for 2017. (Looking at you, St. Louis and Pittsburgh.) They’ll also motivate teams in their similar tier—say, San Francisco and Washington—that a comparable move is now more necessary, that they need to “keep up” with their opponents’ upgrades. (And truth be told, Andrew Miller in a Giants uni makes a whoooooole lot of sense right about now.) Then there are the teams in an as-yet-undefined space—the Dodgers, the Marlins, and the Mets—who are now faced with deciding which tier they’d like to enter. Is it worth it to try and secure that Wild Card spot and pin your whole hopes on one game? The Pirates will tell you that’s no way to live, but anything can happen once you make it past the first weekend in October.
So the Mets will either make a flurry of small moves in the next few days or largely stand pat and take their chances with the roster they have. Last season, it was a combination of one large acquisition (Yoenis Cespedes) that looked monumental in hindsight and a sampling of smaller moves (Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Addison Reed) that, again, took on larger importance as the season wore on. If the Mets do largely stay idle and let the trading deadline pass without doing much to bring in reinforcements, it’s a sign that, among other things, they believe Wheeler can make a difference in the stretch run, that he will be the key second-half newcomer that gives everyone a late-season lift, even it’s only four or five starts’ worth.
Which, OK, maybe he can, but can you really bank on that? His last competitive game in a Mets uniform was September 25, 2014. His recovery has been delayed by several comebacks and he’s likely still several weeks away from attempting a return at Citi Field. He and Bartolo Colon were supposed to be the second-half sixth-man super-subs. But with Wheeler’s slowed recovery and Matt Harvey being shelved for the year with thoracic outlet syndrome, rotation depth is not the regular season strength it was back in April.
Here’s the rub: The Mets are still the rare team that can approach the wild card game with a smidge more hope than defeatism. If you throw Noah Syndergaard out there and survive you can come back with Jacob deGrom in Game 1, Steven Matz in Game 2, and then throw Syndergaard again in Game 3. The problem for the Mets is not necessarily what might happen in the playoffs; it’s that they have to make the playoffs. The Nationals’ slow and steady collapse made last season far less stressful for Mets fans than it could’ve have been, but Washington is healthy and hungry this year. The Mets, meanwhile, are limping along on one strong leg, but it’s all they’ve got. For 2016, the margin for error is long gone.
Yes, the Mets should make some kind of move before Monday’s deadline. They are still very much in contention for that wild card game, and the idea of running Syndergaard out there, be it at home or on the road, in a do-or-die situation has to give every Mets fan some measure of joy. But they need to survive now to advance then.
And at this point, it doesn’t look much like Zack Wheeler will be the significant pick-me-up they were counting on so many months ago. So, who then?